Thursday, 31 March 2011

32/111 – The Devil Within by Stephanie Merritt

I’m afraid I only made it through half of this book before losing interest. It’s another memoir of depression, which I bought pretty recently, but it didn’t suit me at all.

Stephanie Merritt is a novelist and journalist, and she talks about her experiences with manic depression – episodes which have plagued her throughout her life, and a depression which became unmanageable after the birth of her son.

The reason I didn’t get on with it is because it was quite spiritual. Merritt was raised as a Christian, and there is a lot about this in the book and how she feels that it relates to her illness. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, but it just doesn’t interest me. I’m not a religious person in the slightest, and whilst I don’t particularly care what beliefs people choose to hold, I have no desire to read about them, either.

In addition, one of my chief reasons for buying a memoir on depression is to gain a new insight into the condition, and perhaps the way I could relate her experiences to my own, but I felt that the constant references to her Christian upbringing prevented me from doing that. Maybe that’s a little odd to say, since if it was a work of fiction, I might have continued reading without a second thought. There’s nothing wrong with the writing itself, but the religious angle bored me, to be frank.

Next time: Northline by Willy Vlautin

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

31/111 – Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

I bought this book quite recently, partly because I liked the cover, and partly for another reason that I will get out of the way now because I don’t think it really bears further discussion. Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King. That is mostly why I bought this novel, but I don’t really want to talk about in light of that, because that isn’t the way I read it, and I don’t think it’s useful or helpful to compare the two. But you have to have A reason to buy a book, and liking the guy’s dad is as valid as any reason.

There. Out of the way.

In any case, I still thought Heart-Shaped Box had a cool idea behind it. Judas Coyne, an aging heavy metal rocker collects weird and wonderful objects, usually associated with death. He even has a snuff tape! So when his assistant tells him that there is a ghost for sale on ebay, he decides to buy it. The seller posts Judas one of the dead man’s suits in a heart-shaped box. Judas soon finds out that the ghost is real and wants him dead for reasons he has yet to work out. As it turns out, the ghost belongs to a former hypnotist and step-father of an old girlfriend who committed suicide after Judas ended their relationship. Now he has to figure out a way to get rid of it for good before it makes him commit suicide, too.

I liked this. It wasn’t perfect, but I liked it. It was a pleasant read, and genuinely spooky at times (probably shouldn’t have finished it in bed with my creepy reading light). In other places, it was a little cheesy and predictable. Judas’ goth girlfriend is a bit of a cliché, but I think she’s supposed to be. It was a little too fast-paced in places, and could have done with a little more subtlety and suspense, but would make a fairly decent horror film. It's his first novel, so it would be nice to follow up and see what he comes up with next. Ultimately, I'd like to see something where I feel a little more for the characters, where they are a little more natural than the slightly caricatured ones in this book. 

It’s not revolutionary, just a really cool idea and some good filthy horror fun.

Next: The Devil Within by Stephanie Merritt

30/111 – Black Hole by Charles Burns

Just a little something to bear in mind before I get started with this review: the quality and frequency of things on here might be a little limited over the coming weeks, as I’m having some personal problems as well as my continuing (and seemingly unending) state of unemployment. I want to keep on doing my best with this, though, and so I will try. So far I’m enjoying this little project of mine very much and I intend to continue with it.

Black Hole was pretty fantastic. Set in the 1970s, it follows four loosely linked teenagers. They are beset with all the usual drama associated with being a teenager, like friendships, relationships, drugs and discovering who you are. However they are also plagued by a different problem. A disease, known only as ‘the Bug’ is spread amongst the teenagers by sexual contact, which means it spreads pretty damn fast. The Bug is accompanied by a colourful array of symptoms such as strange dreams and odd mutations – one girl develops a tail and a boy develops an extra mouth on his throat, which seems to speak only his darkest fears. Most disturbing, the Bug causes those people with visible mutations to be cast out from society, and the misfits all live together in a campsite in the woods. Their shared disease does not, however, automatically lead to harmonious living, and there are some frightening things that occur in their new community.

The artwork is gorgeous. It’s black and white, but heavily black, and there is a wonderful sense of precision. So crisp. I also really liked the inner-monologue style of the narration, too. I don’t think that’s something I've ever really picked up on in a comic before, or if it was there, maybe I didn’t notice. It’s also remarkable how well done it is without the tone becoming whiny or self-pitying, which is how I tend to view teenagers.

Black Hole is obviously a metaphor for growing up and emerging into adulthood, and there is also a lot of stuff about sexual awakening, too, which I hadn’t expected. Burns handles it really well, and both the male and female characters feel real and evoke a slightly painful nostalgia for the special hell that is adolescence.

I really, really enjoyed this. Totally spellbinding.

Next up: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill 

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Not sure if I should read this book

UK cover
Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso is a memoir of the abuse she suffered from the age of eight for the next fifteen years at the hands of a man called Peter.

I'm in two minds about it: on one hand, it's supposed to be quite literary and apparently deals with difficult issues head-on and with a sense of clarity. On the other hand, I'm not sure if I can bring myself to read it.

It's already attracted quite a lot of controversy, and there are reviews posted on Amazon (some of them bad) before the book has even been released. It's attracted attention due to it's style. As I said, it's supposedly quite literary, which is demonstrated in part by the cover and title. It lacks the usual aesthetic of 'misery memoirs', which I absolutely loathe.

In Waterstone's for a time there was a separate section next to the biography section called 'Painful Lives' which was full of these kinds of books mainly dealing with childhood abuse. They all have slightly sickening and overly dramatic titles like, Daddy's Little Earner, This Must Never Happen Again and Don't Tell Mummy. They usually all feature a white background with a black and white photo of a child looking forlornly at the reader with big, sad eyes. Sometimes there will be a doll with only one eye, or a teddy lying on its side - in any case, something which symbolises a broken childhood. The cover text is usually always in some kind of script font.

I can't understand why these books sell. I can't understand the people who buy them. For me, they seem so gratuitous, voyeuristic, exploitative, sensationalist. Trashy. And yet they do. A quick glance on Amazon shows that they generally have positive reviews, and quite a few of them, at that. There is clearly a market for these kinds of stories. Maybe I'm being cynical - perhaps I should be celebrating the fact that there are stories like this widely available. Perhaps for the public it decreases the taboos surrounding sexual abuse. Perhaps some victims need stories like these to be comforted and come to terms with their own pasts.

US cover
I have read only one misery memoir. When I was a teenager, Dave Pelzer's A Child Called 'It' was released, and it was the first book of it's kind that I had come across. I picked it up and read it, and was surprised by how difficult it was to read. Not the style - that was fine. But the parts describing the abuse at the hands of his mother was incredibly hard to read. As it should be, I guess. I mean, that's an appropriate reaction, right? Nobody reads about a child being forced to eat their own vomit without flinching a little bit inside.

These books are problematic, too. On more than one occasion I have come across reviews where people have expressed doubt over the author's credibility. There are usually suggestions across the spectrum from slight exaggeration to outright lies. In The Adderall Diaries, Elliott even describes how his own father goes onto Amazon to post bad reviews of his books because he doesn't like the portrait his son has painted of him. Tiger, Tiger is no exception. It's said that Fragoso recounts conversations she had at age eight with a high level of accuracy, which some people have said is unlikely to be a true reflection of what took place. Others have defended her by pointing out that she kept a diary throughout her childhood. I think this doubt in part stems from the fact that readers are so repulsed by the terrible capabilities of human behaviour, that it is a reflex reaction to think, 'that can't possibly be true'.

Just last week a friend told me that a friend of theirs had been abused by a previous partner. What they had been through was so dreadful and unimaginably horrible that my first instinct was, 'that's bullshit'. Not because I didn't believe the victim, but that for a split second I couldn't believe that anyone could commit the actions described to me. Of course, I know better. I feel terrible about that small moment of doubt, but I like to think that doubt came from a place of naivete and hopefulness that one human couldn't do that to another, rather than malice towards victims of abuse.

(I hope it goes without saying that I think that children should ALWAYS be taken at their word if they're saying they've been abused. With other groups, it can be a little more complicated, but I don't really want to get into that here.)

However what sets Tiger, Tiger apart is the lack of misery memoir aesthetic and title, which points to something different here, and perhaps something more complicated than the standard narrative that this genre of books tends to follow. I'm not sure yet what it's trying to do, but part of me wants to find out.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

29/111 – The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott

I should not have bought this book. I bought this book while I was in New York. I think it had just come out, or been released earlier that year. I met someone who had read it and liked it, and bought it based on that.

This isn’t a bad reason to buy a book. Usually it’s a great reason. But it doesn’t always work out, and this is a classic case of that thing I just said.

I probably wouldn't have bought this book if I had realised it was non-fiction. I think I assumed it was fiction, largely based on the other books by this author, which were fiction. This may have even been shelved with his fiction, as I can’t imagine picking this up from the biography section. But, clearly I'm a moron - I guess I thought the word 'memoir' on the front cover was some kind of... trick?

I’m not going to talk much about it, because I don’t have much to say. I only got to the first 100 pages before deciding that it wasn’t right for me. I feel like I must be missing out on something special here, because it’s received great reviews. It also wouldn’t be fair for me to criticise without having read the entire text.

The writing itself is good, but I didn’t like the disconnected feeling, or the narrator that much, which feels overly harsh because it’s the actual guy, but that’s how I felt. It’s not bad, it just wasn’t right for me.

Next: Black Hole by Charles Burns

28/111 – Annabel by Kathleen Winter

I’ve exercised my right to a veto for March. I didn’t fancy Atomised, so I’ve decided to go for Annabel instead, as it’s a delicious weighty hardback and has also been longlisted for the Orange prize - this year, many of them are said to deal with difficult topics. I have a few more of the longlisted titles, and I'm looking forward to reading those, too.

Set during the 1960s and 70s in a village called Labrador, Canada, Treadway and Jacinta are a tranquil married couple. Not happy or unhappy, necessarily, but tranquil. With the birth of their first child comes uncertainty – the baby is born with both male and female sex organs.

It's decided that the baby should be raised as a boy, and so he is swiftly named Wayne and told nothing of his rare condition. We follow Wayne from his birth through to his early twenties, and discover that it is not just he who experiences turmoil and confusion, but his parents and friends, too. Of course, Wayne’s hermaphroditism and his ensuing confusion surrounding his gender identity is a core issue, and one which is handled deftly and with tenderness.

Labrador is a rural town where men are manly and women are womanly, and for much of the book, there doesn’t seem to be a place for Wayne to fit within these narrow confines. His father is a stoic man who yearns for a son, but who deep down also cares for Wayne’s happiness. His mother seems to ache for Wayne to grow into the body he was born with (whatever that may be), and it haunts her that he cannot. There are some heart-wrenching exchanges between mother and son/daughter, such as when the young Wayne wants a costume he sees on the members of a (female) synchronised swimming team. At the same time, Wayne struggles to live up to the example set by his.

Wayne is a sweet and confused person and I was rooting for him the whole way through. Other great characters include Wally; a childhood friend of Wayne’s who is also an enigmatic and moving character. I guess it’s also no coincidence that two of the novel’s strongest female characters have male names – just more evidence of the blurred lines between ‘man’ and ‘woman’. My favourite was probably the mysterious travelling Thomasina. She is Jacinta’s friend, the only other witness to Wayne’s birth and eventually, Wayne’s fiercest supporter. The novel itself takes its name from Thomasina’s deceased daughter, named Annabel.

I’m not an expert on hermaphrodites or trans-gendered people, but from what I can see, Winter handles the topic with respect and shows the confusion which can lead to terrible decisions made by parents and medical professionals, and the cruelty of people who attack what they do not understand. The book is written beautifully, and I particularly loved the way I was immersed in the landscape of Labrador. The challenges which face Wayne from his birth are clear from the outset, and the way he works through things is sometimes sad, but ultimately triumphant.

Next: The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott

Sunday, 20 March 2011

27/111 – Light Boxes by Shane Jones

Another short book! Well, it’s not so much that it’s short, it’s also incredibly small. Teeny, lovely little thing, which is what attracted me to it in the first place. According to the blurb, this book had a first print run of only 500 copies before becoming a somewhat cult, word-of-mouth success and getting picked up by Penguin, so I was interested pretty quickly. It’s a really interesting little book, and quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before – very innovative. The tone of it reminded me a little of Alex Garland’s The Coma, which I found to be a little bleak and strange, but sort of wonderful.

At its heart, Light Boxes is a fairytale, albeit a dark one - very abstract and filled with weird and haunting symbolism. Thaddeus is husband to Selah and father to Sofia. The village they live in is being held hostage by the season on February, who has reigned for more than three hundred days. There appears to be no hope for sun or Spring, and February has stopped all flight, to the disappointment of the balloon-loving residents. Soon, villagers are found dead and children begin to disappear from their beds, including Sofia. A group of men called The Solution approaches Thaddeus about leading a war effort against February, which involves everything from attempting fly to dressing in summer clothes and pretending Spring has arrived.

The course of the action is hard to put across, so I’ll leave the book to speak for itself. It’s told from a variety of points of view, and there are some characters which are difficult or even impossible to separate from one another. The most striking thing I felt whilst reading this book was that it is clearly about depression – the manifestation which is more commonly known as the Winter Blues. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a kind of depression which occurs during the Winter months due to a lack of sunlight. Very northern places like Alaska and high up in Sweden and Norway are affected more severely, and as a result they tend to have a higher suicide rate, but people all over the world can be affected too. One of the most popular treatments for SAD is… Light Boxes.

Light boxes are extremely powerful lamps which the user is supposed to use daily for an allotted time (depending on the strength of the light and the severity of their illness). They are extremely bright. I have one of my own and I love it. It’s hard to say whether it makes much of a difference, but it transforms a dull, grey English day into one which seems passably sunny. They are mostly useful for regulating your sleep/wake cycles. When it’s dark a lot of the time, your body can get confused, and in the Winter, there is more of an urge to sleep a lot (or hibernate), so light boxes are one way to combat that.

In Thaddeus’s village, light boxes are one of the tools they build to try and combat February, and references to sadness and depression are made frequently throughout. February himself seems to be suffering badly from the illness, and as I progressed through the book, the more convinced I became that this tale was an allegory for a writer’s struggle with depression. In February’s mind, it is the sad, grey month of February all the time. Thaddeus is his inner self, leading the war effort to do everything they can to end the reign of February. I have heard that the film rights have been bought for this, and I’m really interested to see what they do with it, as I have my own very firm idea in mind of how it could be interpreted.

Visually it’s also pretty stunning – Jones uses a variety of interesting typesetting techniques such as different fonts, different text sizes, and other devices such as lists, which was unexpected. I’m not sure how much it really added to the book, but it was really cool to see something experimental.

A strange delight. Read this in one sitting with a pot of mint tea. You’ll see why.

Next up: Atomised by Michel Houellebecq

Friday, 18 March 2011

26/111 – Vignettes of Ystov by William Goldsmith

This is another title I picked up during my work experience at Vintage. Before staring there, I hadn’t realised that a lot of their imprints were working together on the same floor, let alone in the same building. Jonathan Cape is one of my favourites, because not only do they publish great fiction, but they also publish quite a few graphic novels which is marvellous.

This isn’t going to be a long review, because it’s such a quick read, although what’s inside is whimsical and slightly absurd, but in that good way. As the title suggests, this graphic novel is a series of vignettes which take place in a bleak and slightly Eastern European-ish city named Ystov.

There are several main characters – the poet Eugene Tusk who spends his time reminiscing over his now-disbanded poetry society. He also searches for clues surrounding the arrest of his artist friend for ‘nose-crimes’. Then there is the story of the janitor who has transformed his home into a museum of rubbish, complete with glass cases and an imagined history of everything he displays. I also loved the story of the two children acting as match-breakers, rather than match-makers. The artwork is like nothing I’ve come across before – it’s all hand painted in what looks like watercolours. Sort of rough around the edges, but very charming and tangible.

These seemingly unconnected events and lives brush up against each other briefly, but never really touching. There is a strange sort of quality to these stories. They are brief (only two pages each), and with little text, and yet somehow they work beautifully, and are completely successful in conjuring the feeling that they set out to. Even though they are brief, they are oddly satisfying. Recommended if you liked Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You.

Next time: Light Boxes by Shane Jones.

Female author wins award, still gets ignored

Jennifer Egan: winner

Earlier this month, Brooklyn-based novelist Jennifer Egan was awarded the National Book Critics Award for her most recent novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad. However, as reported on Jezebel, instead of celebrating Egan’s achievement, theLA Times decided to interpret the story from a somewhat different angle. In a move that almost defies belief, they instead chose to highlight the fact that Jonathan Franzen did not win the award. Not only did the story focus on his loss, but the main photo used was of Franzen himself, rather than Egan, the winner. In the UK, we roll out the word ‘gobsmacking’ for instances like these.

This decision to focus on poor J-Franz rather than celebrating Jennifer Egan’s victory is especially worrying considering statistics published last month by VIDA, the organisation for Women in Literary Arts. Their analysis reveals that not only are male authors more likely to be published in the first place, but that books written by men are much more likely to be reviewed in major publications in print and online, and furthermore, the people writing these reviews are also overwhelmingly male.

Jonathan Franzen: not the winner
A woman wins a literary prize, and yet a man gets the attention? This state of affairs is frustrating and deeply troubling, and reignites the question, what do female authors have to do to get recognition for their work? It seems if you take the same view as the LA Times, not even winning an award is enough. 

The picture to the right shows the LA Times story as it first appeared several days ago. They have since changed the photo used in their story to a headshot of Egan and her novel. For those interested in more information and analysis, please refer to Bookslut’s excellent series of posts on the VIDA statistics.

Also posted to MobyLives

Thursday, 17 March 2011

25/111 – A Dark Matter by Peter Straub

I was interested in reading this after Pete had begun to, and had said he was enjoying it quite a bit. I was also interested in reading something by Peter Straub because I have read a couple of collaborations between him and Stephen King: The Talisman and Black House. However in the end he didn’t really like it that much, so gave me his copy to do what I like with. I decided to read it.

The style is similar to Stephen King, in some ways. Told from the point of view of a writer, looking back on his childhood and looking for answers to a creepy, slightly supernatural mystery he has never understood. All devices that Stephen King uses. I didn’t like the style quite so much – there was something a bit different, which is hard to place. I can’t quite stop comparing the two authors in my mind, for obvious reasons.

Lee is a successful novelist, married to a blind woman, also named Lee. I will refer to them as Lee and lady-Lee from here. As teenagers they belonged to a group of friends who one day became seduced by Spencer Mallon, a kind of spiritual guru offering all sorts of nonsensical pearls of wisdom to the star-struck teenagers. Lee decides not to join the group, and gets left behind a little. Meanwhile, Mallon recruits everyone else to help him perform some kind of ritual that he claims will change the world. Afterwards, one boy is dead, another missing, and another confined to an asylum for the next thirty years. Lady-Lee refuses ever to speak of the events with Lee, until as an adult, he decides to investigate.

I love occult-y storylines. Not in a dark romance kind of way, with vampires and werewolves screwing each other, but in more of an H.P. Lovcraft-ian kind of way. The idea that there is another, much more horrible universe is something that I do not believe in, and yet… I sort of do. Allusions to these darker places are made frequently in Stephen King’s and Lovecraft’s writing,  and they freak the fuck out of me. I think the best description I have encountered is written by Stephen King, where he describes our world as a kind of bag. An old, leather bag, which is not worn through anywhere, but just worn… thin. And through those thin places, sometimes it’s possible that something can make itself seen, or with the right prompt, come through. In A Dark Matter, it is the group, led by Spencer Mallon, who conjure up this other place and allow things to slip through into their world.

There is something about this idea that I find incredibly primal, and ancient. I am drawn to it and repulsed by it at the same time. The rites and rituals have an attraction and at the same time are utterly horrifying. I can imagine staring into another world and my hair going white on the spot and immediately transforming into a lunatic. I haven’t even been able to bring myself to read any H.P. Lovecraft since I was a teenager - that’s how much it frightens me. Some excellent, but supremely creepy stories by Stephen King involving these ideas include ‘N’ in Just After Sunset and Crouch End in Nightmares and Dreamscapes, and of course, The Mist.

Anyway, onto the book. I’m not sure how I felt about it. There were some good elements, but they didn’t all fit together in the way that I was hoping. The narrator, Lee, seems to be the main focus of the book, and I wish there had been more genuine perspectives from the other characters. It was too much about him. I think that towards the last quarter of the novel I was also becoming very frustrated and a bit bored with the constant re-tellings of the night of the ritual. The last hundred pages are too long and drawn-out and I found myself skipping over needless passages, like the description of ten pages or so involving the group coming together one final time for lady-Lee to tell her side of the story. 

Having said that, there were some really good bits - lots of creepiness and his writing is good all round. It was mostly just a couple of tweaks with characters and plot that bothered me. His evil characters are good, but there's not enough of them in there. It was too neutral. Not enough good vs. evil for me. Spencer Mallon is too much of an ambiguous character, too. He is central to the plot, and yet he never truly appears. My favourite character was probably the one who goes nuts and spends the rest of his life quoting from novels instead of speaking. 

I'm bored of writing now. This wasn't really a good review but it's late and I'm tired and I'm not going to change it. One last thought:

I think that what scares me so much about these multi-dimensional ideas is that I find them strangely credible. Of all the weird speculative phenomena, the idea that there are multiple universes, and that in at least one of them, there are things more horrible than we can imagine, is something that could be true. If you think it’s unlikely, just take a look over at CERN, I’m sort of curious and sort of horrified by what the Large Hadron Collider is going to find. Or what it could cause to find us…

Next: Vignettes of Ystov by William Goldsmith

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

24/111 – The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier

This book is a proof copy that I snagged when I was doing work experience at Vintage. I had been doing some tasks for them on something totally unrelated to this book when I came across an American review, and realised that Jonathan Cape would be publishing over here. So I got a copy!

I was mainly interested in it because of the central idea, which is; what if one day you could see the pain of everyone around you? In the world of The Illumination, pain inexplicably begins to manifest itself as light. Whether it’s a paper cut, a bruise, cancer, arthritis – everything shines through. In all other respects, their world is the same as ours, only the characters now have to navigate the world with all their ailments on show.

The book is split into six main parts, each following a particular character: a divorcee, a bereaved husband, a young boy, a travelling missionary, a writer, and a homeless bookseller. These seemingly random people are tied together by a handwritten journal of once-a-day love notes.

We first meet Carol-Ann in her kitchen, where she slices the top off her thumb and heads into hospital. During her stay, she meets the dying Patricia, who gives her the journal of notes that Patricia has transcribed from her husband, Jason. Patricia’s distressed widower eventually gets the journal back, and it is at this point which we leave Carol Ann and move on to his portion of the tale. The book progresses in a similar fashion, with the journal being passed from one person to another.

I was excited by the idea of visible pain, but I was a little wary of the journal idea, and admittedly when explaining it to people it sounds really cheesy. But Brockmeier uses the journal sparingly and deftly, and in the end I found that the effect it had on people’s lives was very moving. I’m a journal-ler myself (albeit not of love notes), and there was something very appealing about this handwritten object passing through different sets of hands and changing their lives in a small way. For Jason, it gives him a link back to his dead wife. For its next owner, Chuck, it leads him to stand up for himself against a bully. Nina, an author, uses the idea of the notes left behind to write a short story. And so on.

The book is wonderfully written, too, and it is the skill of the author’s writing that stops The Illumination from seeming overly sentimental. The stories are all sad, and each character has their own loneliness and their own pain to deal with, but he manages to convey this with grace and tenderness. Another thing I liked which I didn't notice on reading it - one reviewer pointed out that the chapter with the misfit boy, Chuck, has exactly ten words in each sentence, a reflection of the way in which he organises his world.

I have a couple of points of complaint, one good natured, and one slightly critical. The former is that I was a little frustrated that once the story moves on from the character in focus, it doesn’t return! You never find out what happens to Carol Ann or Chuck, who were my favourites, and some of the stories even span several decades. I think the point here is that it doesn’t matter what happens to those characters after we leave them – their lives have been touched in some way before the journal moves on.

My only disappointment is in the second section of the book. In the wake of the Illumination phenomenon, Jason sets out to take photos of people and their everyday pain, and encounters a group of teenagers who are self-harming. He takes a photo of a girl named Melissa, and when it appears in a newspaper, the picture ends up getting her kicked out of her parents’ home. I found that her character stretched credibility. I don’t know if Brockmeier has successfully written teenage girls before, but this particular one was dreadful. It wasn’t the writing I had a problem with, but her actions - she was portrayed as that kind of damaged-but-sassy girl that I would loved to have been as a teenager, but who never really existed other than on television.

On the whole, that’s really just a small complaint. The Illumination is dazzling and compelling, and beautifully written. The highly imaginative premise alone makes this a fantastic and often touching read.

Next time: A Dark Matter by Peter Straub

Friday, 11 March 2011

23/111 – The Coma by Alex Garland

Another short book, this is probably Alex Garland’s least known work. I remember distinctly that when it came out I was working in Blackwell’s and being intrigued by the illustrations throughout the book. I didn’t buy it at the time, having been scarred by the dreadful film adaptation of Garland’s best known novel, The Beach, starring my teenage dreamboat of that year, Leonardo Di Caprio. The trauma still being too fresh in my mind, I put aside The Coma.

Last year, I finally got round to reading The Beach, since the memory of the film had faded somewhat, and I found that I enjoyed it very much. I can’t really remember if the film was really as bad as all that – maybe I simply wasn’t ready for it, or too young to understand it. Maybe (probably) the book was just better. But I soon picked up a copy of The Coma and decided that I would read it one day, too.

The narrator, Carl, describes his journey home one night which ends in a severe beating, which puts him into a coma. In the days following, Carl wakes up and makes his way home to pick up his life and tend to his injuries. But is he really awake?

The novella that follows is full of strange dreams and blank spaces where knowledge of his own life should be. It explores the idea of our memories making us who we are. Carl, who is suffering from amnesia, cannot remember any details about his life, or even what job he does, and soon realises that in order to wake up, he must rediscover who he is. He spends his time shifting between struggling to find some way to jerk himself awake, and giving in to the pleasantness of his dream-world such as enjoying a day with his girlfriend, even though he knows it isn’t real.

I found that this book reminded me of lots of other things - the obvious ‘dream’ thing at the moment being Inception, but it also reminded me of Stephen Hall’s brilliant The Raw Shark Texts, in which the main character is losing his memory, but his future self is leaving notes for him to try and keep up with. Really excellent book.

Garland also evokes a brilliant feeling of unease and creepiness, helped in part by the illustrations which never really reveal that much, kind of like a veil across the action. The idea that he may or may not be dreaming is deeply frightening for Carl, and the ambiguous ending is kind of chilling.

Excellent. Read in one sitting.

Next: The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier

Thursday, 10 March 2011

22/111 - Darkness Visible by William Styron

This is another memoir of depression by a writer, although this time told from a male perspective of Styron’s episode of depression in the mid-80s. It’s a very teeny book – only 85 pages! So I read it all in one sitting, and enjoyed it very much. I also decided it was an appropriate time to read this, as it was published 20 years ago this week.

I haven’t read any William Styron, and having read this, I would like to. It might be a little exhausting, though. He doesn’t waste a single word when he’s writing, and his sentences are so precise that I feel like I’m getting the value of two or three regular sentences when I’m reading them. It's a little tiring to process that much information. On that basis alone, the book could therefore count for about 300 pages.

It’s not heavy-going, though. There is a lot of information but I’m just kidding when I said it’s exhausting – it’s not laborious to read, just intense, which is good in small doses like this one.
Styron doesn’t go into great depth about his depression like Sally Brampton does, he merely touches on each subject briefly – therapy, medication, sleeplessness, anxiety etc. The parts that I found most interesting happened to be quite funny. His bewilderment at recognising depression in himself is both comic and slightly horrifying, and he talks about how many depressives who have been through the cycle before know what the warning signs are, but that they can end up being sidelined until you are much sicker than you ought to be.

He also chronicles the depression and subsequent suicides of several artists and writers that he knows, and I really enjoyed the way he talked about Albert Camus, who he had very much wanted to meet before he died. He quotes Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus:

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

I’m not sure how I feel about this statement. Styron was also confused when he first read it. I haven’t read Sisyphus so I don’t know what it goes on to talk about. I guess I feel that it's a little simplistic - I doubt that suicidal people are in their minds answering a philosophical question when they kill themselves. But I understand why it could seem that way. I guess it depends on whether you think people who kill themselves are choosing to die. That they are committing the act themselves is not in question - but when a mentally unwell person does anything I think it's probably safe to call into question whether they really know what it is they're doing. That they believe they would be better off dead is a response to their illness rather than a response to a philosophical longing, I think (although there is definitely some overlap there).

Again, one of the overall themes of this work is to outline depression as an illness – in Styron’s case he often describes it as a terminal illness, which I found quite interesting. It’s a perspective I had not really considered before. Diseases like cancer are considered terminal – it is taken for granted that the sufferer can easily die from it if they do not respond to treatment. Since one of the symptoms of depression in the desire to die, then this too is a terminal illness. If the sufferer does not respond to treatment then they will die from the disease.

I liked this very much, especially the language. I sort of wanted to read parts of it aloud. Delicious.

Next time: The Coma by Alex Garland

21/111 - Best American Comics 2010 ed. Neil Gaiman

This is going to be a strange one to review, because it doesn’t include many complete works, so I guess the best thing for me to do will be to read, as normal, and highlight some of my favourite extracts and see which ones I might like to pursue further in the future.

But first: how I came to own this book: this title was released when I was living in New York last year, and I knew that both Bryan Lee O’Malley and Neil Gaiman would be there. I decided to go to the signing in the hope that Bryan Lee O’Malley would sign a copy of Scott Pilgrim 6 so that I could send it back home to Pete. I didn’t count on having to buy of a copy of the book they were promoting, which I guess was pretty asshole-ish of me.

It’s not that I didn’t want a copy: I did. And I would also have ideally liked a signed one. It’s just that by that point in my stay in New York I had already accumulated an alarming amount of books, and I did not look forward to carrying home this one, too. But, for better or worse, I have it: it’s a gorgeous hardback filled with some great snippets of comics, and even better, I got it signed ALONG with a copy of Scott Pilgrim 6.

Here are my favourite pieces:

  • Fly-Trap from Drop-In by Dave Lapp

Based on the author’s experiences working as an art teacher at a drop-in centre for inner-city kids. I loved the simple bold art, and there was something really uncomfortable about the extract. Pulling the legs off the spider was horribly creepy, but the underlying issues were also sad and squirmy.

  • The Lagoon (Hiding in the Water) from The Lagoon by Lilli Carre

I found this kind of funny and haunting. A woman welcomes a creature from the lagoon into her bedroom and offers it a cigarette. Then she follows it out and becomes seduced by its song as her husband watches. Kind of spooky. I really liked the artwork in this, and there were lots of silent panels which I also thought worked really well.

  • Asterios Polyp extract by David Mazzucchelli

I’ve seen this graphic novel in bookshops before, and always kind of liked the look of it. It’s laid out kind of strangely, but still very easy to read and it flows really well. I like that there is pretty much no black used in this (not even for lines), which is unusual. There is also this narrative voice which flows around the action and dialogue which I found really effective.

Ghastly photo of Neil Gaiman and Bryan Lee O'Malley
  • The War on Fornication from Everyone is Stupid Except for Me by Peter Bagge

I was delighted to read this comic, and also a little surprised to find that it had been written by a man, but hey – go men! It’s a short non-fiction comic strip which has appeared in a magazine before, rather than being an extract from a longer story. It deals with the issues surrounding the morning after pill (Plan B) in the US, and how American policies on birth control are harmful to women and seek to control their sexuality and reproductive choices. For example pharmacists refusing to fill out prescriptions for birth control or the morning after pill based on ‘moral’ reservations, but freely handing out drugs for men like Viagra.

This is an issue close to my heart, because as a woman I am indescribably grateful to live in a country where I have control over my reproductive life. America does too, to a certain extent, but there is this undercurrent in politics in the US that women’s reproductive rights are one of the most important things people are fighting to restrict (unlike focusing on ACTUAL important things like reducing poverty or providing healthcare for everyone). Ugh. So I keep half an eye on what’s going on in the US, because if they backslide, I’m afraid of what the repercussions would be in the rest of the world.

  • The Alcoholic excerpt by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel

Again, some non-fiction which was very well done. I liked the artwork and the story. Set in the days following the September 11th attacks, this story looks to be quite promising.

  • Tianic Urination, Hooker Cookies, Duck Mom, Carrot Romance, Pumpkin Drummer and Sleep Multiplication from The Night of Your Life by Jesse Reklaw

These were a series of 4-panel mini-comics that are based on dreams. All are quirky, funny more than a little absurd. According to his bio in the back of this book, he runs a website where people can submit their dreams, and he turns the top-rated ones into little comics.

  • The Flood from A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufield

Again, more non-fiction, which I like. Before I started reading comics I would not really have associated it with being a medium for non-fiction, but as it turns out, it is excellent for this. The first full-length graphic novel I read was Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which I came across after studying an excerpt at University, and it blew my mind.

I also like Chris Ware’s artwork, but I can sometimes find his stuff frustrating to read. I like to way he uses colour, and that his art is all very geometric, but it’s so damn small! Strains my poor eyes to read. I’ll just have to get a magnifying glass or something.

Overall, a cool collection. There's definitely some things in there that I'll check out next time I'm browsing the shelves. I'm glad I've finally read it, as sooner or later it would be totally out of date and I'd look like a total fool, but I managed to avoid that embarrassing blunder. 

Next: Darkness Visible by William Styron

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

20/111 - Shoot the Damn Dog by Sally Brampton

I have wanted to read this book for a couple of years, but I never bought it until recently. I had come to the faulty conclusion that since my ongoing mental health issues seemed to be at bay, then it would be best to ignore them for now. But in the words of the Stephen King short story; Sometimes They Come Back.

Depression makes me boring and stupid. I’m not saying that out of meanness, or out of low self-esteem. It just is. I know it, the people around me know it, and worst of all, the people who care about me know it. So I decided to finally read Sally Brampton’s memoir of her experience with serious depression and see if it would successfully put into words the way depression can feel.

To be clear: Sally Brampton’s memoir is not boring, or stupid. It’s very good, and she writes with clarity and candour about the experience of being depressed. There are parts which are incredibly hard to read, parts which are funny, and parts which are hopeful. I was interested in reading this mostly because she is a novelist and newspaper columnist, and I was curious to see how she would write about her illness in light of these things. I wanted to see what parallels there were between her illness and my own, being that she was a white, British, educated woman. Obviously there are differences (for one, she is an alcoholic; I am not) but there are also vast stretches of all-too-familiar landscape.

In particular I was interested in the idea that when she was at her most unwell, she found it impossible to read and write, down to the most basic level of being to understand words on a page (not to mention side effects from medication which caused her to tremble so badly that she could not even sign her name). At one point her psychiatrist even suggests that if she were to take an IQ test at her most unwell, it would probably be about 30 points below what she would normally expect to score. This interested me because it was not something I associated with as a symptom of depression. When I was at my most unwell I thought I was literally becoming stupider by the day, so it was very comforting to touch upon this shared experience.

It’s quite a personal book for to have written. It’s halfway between memoir and self-help. In Waterstone’s it's kept in the health section with the other mental health books, rather than the ‘touchy-feely’ crap. I would say that my only criticisms are that this could potentially appeal to quite a narrow audience: Brampton writes from a position of privilege as a white, relatively well-off writer, and this could be a little alienating for the average reader, especially those under the care of the dreamy NHS. I can’t really fault her for that, though. She can only write from her own experience.

I felt like her main aim with this book was to talk about her illness in a completely open way, in order to remove some of the stigma that is associated with depression. She tries to work round and through some of the prejudices people still have about mental health problems, and how difficult it is to care for someone with those problems. She doesn’t offer any concrete solutions; there are none.

It’s very well written and there is some great information in there, too. I don’t have much else to say about this title without it getting too personal, which is not what I want. So I’ll end things here.

Next: The Best American Comics 2010 edited by Neil Gaiman

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

19/111 - Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam

This is one of the books I picked up from the lovely people at Vintage when I was doing work experience there. It appealed to me first of all because of the title. Fucking awesome title. It’s potentially a good title for my life. I have several books with titles that appear as though they could be heading up a list, so I guess it’s a device that I dig right now. Others of mine include: True Things About Me by Deborah Kay Davies and And This Is True by Emily Mackie. It’s also post-apocalyptic, which earns massive points for me, too.

This tale is set in an alternate future where the Y2K bug really did take hold and led to the collapse of society. Told through a series of vignettes, rather than a cohesive narrative, the narrator goes from a young boy to a middle-aged man, with gaps of several years between each chapter, and the reader is offered a brief snapshot of what course his life is taking. Throughout the vignettes, we are introduced to different people he encounters such as his parents, his girlfriend Margo and a mysterious hyper-sexual employer, Juliet.

The narrator, who remains un-named (unless I missed it) muddles and scrambles his way through life from day to day, year to year, with no real plan. Sometimes he talks his way into situations or ends up stealing in order to survive. Lots of thriftiness in this novel. His life seems to be a series of near-misses with both dangerous situations and with potential relationships. There is also an underlying exploration into the blurry lines between right and wrong. Our protagonist is fairly amoral as a person, and does what he needs to in order to survive, but he is not without mercy or kindness sometimes. Everyone he encounters also seems to operate in this way, and maybe there is no place for right or wrong in this new world.

Steven Amsterdam is sparse with his words and descriptions, which I enjoyed. I like to imagine what has occurred to cause this apocalypse, and the few details he does give away are enough to tell you that things are bad. Natural disasters and cancers blaze their way across the country, and stability as we know it appears to be a thing of the past. I usually prefer more detail with my post-apocalyptic scenarios, but this was executed very well.

At one point the narrator sits down to watch Robocop and laughs heartily at all the wrong predictions for the future, which is interesting. Amsterdam’s predictions for his potential future are much more realistic and pretty chilling. His world is one where people find it difficult or impossible to put down roots, as they’ll simply have to move on again. Relationships, too, are an outmoded form of cohesion – the narrator and his girlfriend can only sign an affirmation of their relationship once every eighteen months; no more lifetime marriage contracts.

His vision of the future is unsettling and bleak. It is a world that I wouldn’t want to inhabit, and maybe that’s the reason I came away from this feeling a little unsatisfied. His final chapter includes a reunion with his father, which at first seemed hopeful, but now I’m not so sure. That's all I have to say about this one for now. Maybe shouldn't have read the last fifty pages with sleeping pills in my system, but it seemed appropriate, somehow.

Next up: Shoot the Damn Dog by Sally Brampton

Monday, 7 March 2011

Report: World Book Night

Trafalgar Square
As unofficial British correspondent for MobyLives, this weekend I attended the wonderful launch of World Book Night to report back to our readers on the festivities. The opening ceremony took place on Friday 4th March in Trafalgar Square, with a line-up of authors including Nick CaveJohn le CarreSarah Waters and many others. The set-up was pretty spectacular, with a stage under Nelson's Column furnished to look like a cosy sitting room full of couches and even a fireplace which, unfortunately for the night's readers, was not real.

By 6pm Trafalgar Square was filled with people eagerly waiting for the start of the night, which was briefly introduced by Jamie Byng, the brains behind World Book Night and head of Canongate Books. The idea behind the evening was for authors to read from either their own work or from their favourite texts. The first author to kick off the proceedings was Australian writer DBC Pierre, author of Booker Prize-winning Vernon God Little, who decided to read from the opening of Charles Dickens' Bleak House. Given the rapidly dropping temperature of the evening, it was an appropriate choice, but what was even more striking was the hush that spread across the crowd as he started reading.

Sofas and a mock fireplace
The crowd remained attentive and maintained high spirits throughout the event, and highlights included British author Alan Bennett who read from his memoir A Life Like Other People's, and who concluded his reading with the frank statement, 'Closing libraries is child abuse!' which was met with huge cheers throughout the crowd. Later, Philip Pullman, who has also been a key figure in the fight against UK library closures, read from his novel The Northern Lights.

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London
Other great moments included London Mayor Boris Johnson who appeared on stage to a mixture of applause and heckling from the audience, but ultimately won the crowd over with his hearty rendition of a passage fromLucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. Before reading he informed the audience; 'It is my duty, my Mayoral duty to read you one of the best short accounts of a hangover ever to appear in English Literature'.

Another huge supporter of World Book Night, Mark Haddon, introduced his reading by saying, 'A really good book does an extraordinary thing which nothing else in the world can do which is to give you instant intimate access into the mind of another human being,' and 'World book night is about giving and sharing things for free in a world that is obsessed with money and profit'. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was the most requested book out of the 25 titles chosen for World Book Night.

Margaret Atwood
One of the biggest hits of the weekend was Margaret Atwood, who flew in all the way from Canada to take part in the festivities. She read a passage from her novel The Blind Assassin, which was also one of the 25 titles chosen. She introduced her reading by commenting on how brave the audience was to withstand the cold, and imparted the following advice regarding the best way to entice potential lovers:
'...his method of seduction is storytelling, and this is why you should all read a lot! If you are a male person, then you will know a lot of stories to tell, and if you're a female person then you'll know when you've heard them before'.

The next day was World Book Night itself, so I decided to visit a couple of bookstores before heading over the WBN party at the Southbank Centre. I stopped at Waterstone's Piccadilly, which had several displays and was hosting a book quiz later that evening. At Foyles, I even managed to pick myself up a WBN copy of Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Later in the evening at the blissfully warm Southbank Centre, the night started off with readings from up and coming authors Rebecca Hunt, Stuart Evers, Evie Wyld and Joe Dunthorne, and also included other bookish activities such as literary speed dating, book exchanges, music, and my favourite - a corner devoted to a poetry doctor, where patients were prescribed poems for their ailments of body and soul.

Margaret Atwood at the Southbank Centre
Also in attendance at this event were some lovely folks handing out flyers in support of the Big Green Bookshop in North London. These guys are a struggling independent store, and they've recently launched a campaign to try and help save their store from closing down, so if you get a spare moment, check them out and support them in whatever way you can. In spite of some indie Booksellers having reservations about the potential impact of WBN, the people from the Big Green Bookshop were supportive and excited about the project, and in particular spoke about the sense of community which they hoped that World Book Night would help to build.

Big Green Bookshop
Whether or not WBN will be successful in boosting the book trade has yet to be seen, however an earlier report from The Bookseller shows a promising rise in sales figures amongst the 25 titles chosen for the giveaway. Overall, the weekend had an extremely positive feel to it, and I had a great time. The sheer numbers of people at both events was extremely encouraging, and all in attendance were excited and enthusiastic about the spirit of the project, and not just getting a free book or two. As for the future, Jamie Byng has stated his ambitions that World Book Night 2012 will grow beyond the shores of the UK and Ireland, so stay tuned for next year.

Me and my World Book Night copy of Love in the Time of Cholera


Also posted to MobyLives